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Thanksgiving Day with Jesus and Matthew

Jesus enjoyed a good meal. That fact probably infuriates people who believe perfect faith means unrelenting asceticism and self-denial.

It is not surprising that the concept of enjoying oneself, throwing oneself into all of life, is a little alien in a nation of believers whose spiritual forerunners are, after all, Puritans.

Jesus, if we’re reading things correctly, would begrudge no one a fine Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. Good food, young children showing every color of the emotional rainbow in the course of three or four hours, old-timers wondering where the years went and savoring each second despite the din; some people toiling away in the kitchen, willingly for the most part, muttering and wiping away steam for the rest of it. Every individual can draw his or her own mental Thanksgiving picture from memories past -- or imagined.

Then comes the question of giving thanks, given that’s what the day is for. The thanks are not just a benediction on the past year.

For believers, thanks are invariably the start of something. For believers who listen, the thanks have an action requirement attached.

Why spoil a good Thanksgiving dinner -- one that Jesus would approve of -- with specters of the hungry, hollow-eyed children with stick limbs foretold in this week’s cover story? Because part of the Christian’s understanding of things is that we are all part of the human family, that borders should not be divisions between those who have plenty and those who starve.

You don’t have to spoil the meal, says Jesus, who enjoyed his own share of feasts and celebrating.

Jesus, of course, was always confounding everyone. When the angry liberals wanted him to be radical, he finished the bottle, wiped his chin and said the equivalent of, “Lighten up.” When the triumphalists wanted him to lead the parade into town, smite his enemies, proclaim victory, he spoke of his failure, suffering and death. He scolded them for not getting it.

Though one might be hard put to draw a prescription from the confounding Jesus, it is enough to say enjoy the meal to the full, provided that, filled and refreshed, you do what is required. And don’t do it out of guilt.

Jesus didn’t run on guilt, he operated from tenderness and from a life whose everyday activities included the poor. And so must we.

For Christians who want to go deeper, the precursor to and the aftermath of Thanksgiving Day is everything Matthew records Jesus talking about between the Sermon on the Mount and the miracle of the loaves.

The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t start with the poor -- it starts with those who are not poor, it starts with us: “Happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There’s a presumption in that: Jesus knows he’s talking to people who know where their next meal is coming from.

To be “poor in spirit” takes us beyond mere charity -- though charity is a valuable first step. Jesus requires, as subsequent Catholic teaching emphasizes again and again, effort, exertion, action on behalf of and with the poor.

As interpreted in Catholic social teaching, that action includes working to change unjust systems.

Nor is Jesus offering these things as “amber alerts,” or “editorial advisories,” or optional “how to’s.” We don’t do these things to be Christian. The Jesus twist is, simply, if we are Christian these things are the things we do.

The words recalled in our scriptures were spoken among people who lived in a radical place, under pressure not to conform to the world, facing persecution. And Jesus tells them that is where they should be, in the world but not of it. They were the poor and the oppressed and they were blessed, privileged, they believed, to be living in the always paradoxical kingdom that turns every worldly value upside down.

We today are both burdened and blessed to know the community that spreads beyond our neighborhood; we know the global neighborhood and its condition.

The benefit is ours, of course. Working with and for the poor as people “poor in spirit” -- as people in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to use a favorite John Paul II concept -- is where and how we fulfill our side of the salvation bargain that Jesus gave his life to seal.

The miracle of the loaves is about food, too, about an al fresco feasting.

But its message at Thanksgiving isn’t the food message. Once again, it’s about “spirit” as in “poor in spirit.”

In what “spirit” do we work with and for the poor?

Jesus saw thousands and fed them. We see millions and must feed them. Work for and with and as one of the poor is an offering of our tenderness.

Those are not hungry multitudes threatened with starvation (or in other settings, oppression or neglect). Those are hungry one-at-a-time human beings, to be seen and held close, to love, one at a time, as best we can.

What we give thanks for at Thanksgiving is the capacity to love. The opportunity to love. And -- having given thanks -- for the opportunity to act out of that love.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002